Listen up: Your ‘private’ tweets and status updates could get you sued for defamation, which could cost you thousands, even millions of dollars in damages.
What? How? We’re talking the internet… aren’t I allowed to say what I feel? Isn’t that the whole point of the interwebs?? Maybe. But please know (as is the point of this blog) that just because you say/do something on the internet, you are not immune from the LAW.
Ok, let’s start simple: what is DEFAMATION?
Defamation occurs when one person communicates material that has the effect or tendency of damaging the reputation of another. The concept has existed since Roman times, and aims to protect personal reputation.
But how does that work with free speech? Good question. While the premise of defamation law does appear to work against the concept of free speech, Governments have generally been in favour of imposing at least some level of protection against defamation for the public benefit that these laws are seen to bring. (It should also be noted that while the Americans among us may be protected by their wonderful First Amendment, we in Australia actually have no formal right to “free speech”, but that’s a whole other blog post, stay tuned…)
While the law is generally slow to react to new developments in our society (ie the internet), it is catching up where defamation is concerned. The case of Chris Cairns v Lalit Modi is proof. This is a recent suit involving New Zealand cricketer, Cairns (these types of cases often involve “famous” people), and ‘tweets’ posted by a commissioner of the Indian Premier League (Modi). Modi’s comments alleged that Cairns was a cheat, and involved in match fixing. Cairns won the case and was awarded a LOT of money, however, it is not over yet. The UK High Court has left open the option to sue further media outlets who may have reproduced the comments and therefore spread the damage suffered. (For those interested, you can read the full judgment at http://bit.ly/eH0cAw, or a good summary at http://bit.ly/eLgl3e)
So there’s a good example of how you can be brought down by one or two ill-thought out sentences on Twitter. Some more bad news? Legal action is not limited to your tweets, as Courtney love has found out. The rock-star and former singer of Hole is being sued for statements made across platforms Twitter, Myspace and Etsy.com in 2009 (http://bit.ly/eX7oUt - Remember, it was 2009, Myspace was still cool). She went on a rant against a fashion designer to whom she allegedly owed a few thousand dollars. Now, I won’t repeat all that was said (to protect my own behind), but I’m sure you will find it quite easily through our friend Google ;) - and let me warn you, the statements were pretty harsh.
Word on the (legal) street is that this could become a landmark case for what will amount to online defamation (we’ll keep you posted).
Please note, that in Australia (see: http://bit.ly/gJ1c0k), the steps for defamation are not that difficult to prove. As long as a judge is satisfied that there has been:
- a statement which may be capable of conveying certain imputations to the ordinary, reasonable reader/listener/viewer; and
- those imputations are capable of bearing some defamatory meaning;
the question will be handed over to the jury.
What we need you to understand is that what you type online is NOT private information. Even your ‘private’ messages online may be used by Facebook, or used as evidence in a law suit (we will address this in a later post on privacy).
Twitter is not an online lock-box to store secrets, as Jake and Amir may like you to believe: http://bit.ly/fjyWad. And its influence is not limited to online, instead (as Jake discovered), your tweets can smash your social life: http://bit.ly/eWKYo7.
SO, what to do? Firstly, if you think of something, and you wouldn’t say it to the person, you may not want to post it online. Sure, you can risk posting it and deleting later, but keep in mind Modi’s comments were only up for 16 hours before he “deleted” them. All it takes is for one person to take a screen shot and your 140 characters can exist forever. And be careful with ‘Retweets’. Just because you didn’t author the statement, doesn’t mean you can’t get done for spreading it.
Above all remember, you are what you tweet.